York: Obama leak lets 'Gang of 8' look tough on immigration

What did the Obama White House hope to accomplish when it leaked an outline of the president’s immigration reform proposal? Was a glimpse of the plan — heavy on amnesty, light on enforcement — supposed to move the reform process along? Blow the whole thing up?

“The White House is insisting it was an accidental leak,” says one senior Republican Senate aide. “It may have been, but it nevertheless undermined the process. It raised suspicions the White House is going to pull the rug out from under the GOP, which is engaged in bipartisan negotiations, by ultimately pushing for something we can’t support.”

That’s why Sen. Marco Rubio, the highest-profile Republican working on the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration deal, slammed Obama’s plan hard when it was leaked to USA Today. “If actually proposed, the president’s bill would be dead on arrival in Congress,” Rubio said in a statement.

It doesn’t look good when your erstwhile ally on Capitol Hill describes your proposal as “dead on arrival.” In addition, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a friend of the Gang of Eight proposal in the House, accused Obama of “looking for a partisan advantage and not a bipartisan solution.”

The White House declared innocence in the matter, with new chief of staff Dennis McDonough insisting the president simply wants to have his own plan ready in case congressional talks break down.

But reform skeptics see something more calculating in the White House leak. They note that, while the president’s outline is in fact more liberal than the Gang of Eight proposal, both plans begin with the immediate legalization of nearly all of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country. That legalization takes place before any new efforts to make the border more secure. It’s the heart of comprehensive immigration reform; everything that comes after is just detail work.

“Unfortunately, the leaked plan is little different in its substance from the Gang of Eight plan,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has emerged as a leader of the Senate opposition to current comprehensive proposals. “Crucially, both plans confer legal status and work authorization on day one in exchange for promises of future enforcement on which the administration will never deliver.”

But why would Obama leak a plan so weak on enforcement that Rubio, potentially the president’s best friend on Capitol Hill when it comes to immigration, felt the need to condemn it in the strongest terms? Especially when both the Obama and Gang of Eight share the most important feature, immediate legalization? That’s where the calculation comes in.

Obama knows that many of Rubio’s and Ryan’s Republican colleagues are terrified of the immigration issue. Some would like to support a comprehensive package, but they’re afraid of angering staunchly anti-amnesty GOP voters.

In addition, polls show that many Republicans might be open to an ultimate “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, if that path is proposed by a Republican. When the proposal comes from Obama, GOP support drops precipitously.

So the White House leak, say conservative immigration skeptics, was designed to give Rubio and Republicans something to be against. They can reject the Obama proposal as extreme, making their own proposal look more reasonable to skeptical GOP voters. And Obama still wins immediate legalization.

“The point of leaking the bill is to enable Rubio to say that his amnesty plan is waaay different from the dastardly Obama plan, even though they’re identical in the only respect that matters: amnesty immediately for all illegal aliens, with work cards, Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, the right to travel abroad and return, etc.,” writes Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter immigration measures. “The Rubio and Ryan criticisms of the proposed bill sound almost as though they were scripted by [Democratic Sen. Charles} Schumer and White House to make the Senate ‘Gang of 8’ scheme seem more palatable.”

Will it work? What is remarkable at this point is that no one knows the true views of many, many lawmakers who will ultimately decide whether comprehensive immigration reform passes or fails. For example, it’s not clear whether the Democrats who opposed President George W. Bush’s efforts in 2006 and 2007 will also stand up against President Obama’s.

And what about the Republicans who helped kill Bush’s plan? Will the GOP’s recent failures among Hispanic voters cause them to change their minds? For the moment, most are keeping quiet.

Sessions is talking with several skeptics — “We’re not a gang,” he insists — but each side’s strengths and weaknesses won’t be known until the posturing stops and the actual law-writing begins.